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The Medium by Noelle Sickels






from Chapter 16

Blue Chair Image for Excerpt pages of historical novels written by Noelle Sickels.


September 1940


The band concerts at Brinker’s Green were a pleasant way to pass a summer evening, but Helen preferred the latter concerts of the season, played on the first three Saturdays of September. The weather was crisper, the crowd smaller, the music somehow brighter and more bracing. This year’s final concert was scheduled for tonight. Helen would wear Billy’s varsity letter sweater. It was too big for her, but that was part of its charm.


“Mama,” Helen said, walking into the kitchen, “I need snacks for tonight.”


“Look around,” Emilie replied, “There are chicken wings in the fridge, some squares of pfefferkuchen in the cookie jar.” She was sitting at the table leafing through LIFE magazine.

Chicken wings are too greasy, Helen thought, rummaging in the meat drawer for cold cuts. But she’d definitely take some gingerbread. It was one of Nanny’s specialties, and she knew Billy liked it.


“Dear, dear, look at this,” Emilie said.


Helen came to peer over her mother’s shoulder. She was pointing to a photograph of a group of children crowded together in a deep, narrow ditch. They were all looking up, not at the photographer, but higher, beyond him. What you noticed first were their intent faces. Then the hands. One boy’s hands were clenched together, another was using his hands to shade his eyes, another had his fingers in his mouth. Two girls had their arms around younger kids, their hands curled tenderly around little shoulders. The headline over the picture read “Hitler Tries To Destroy London.”


“It’s a trench shelter in Kent,” Emilie explained. “They’re watching Spitfires intercept bombers.”


The Germans had been dropping bombs on London for the past sixteen days, with no signs of stopping. Thousands had been killed. In Movietone newsreels, Helen had seen people digging in rubble piles, sometimes with their bare hands, and rescue workers carrying stretchers, but this magazine photo gripped her more than any of the moving pictures had. The children were so average-looking, so clean and well-fed, their upturned faces trusting in spite of their obvious anxiety.


When the children’s faces suddenly seemed to acquire throbbing color, Helen knew  without reading the text that they’d all survived that day in the trench, but she also knew that the little boy in the foreground would die later, when a bomb hit his church, and that the girl with her hair pulled back with a barrette would also die, during an air raid that would take out a whole block of houses.


Helen turned away. Everything had been so quiet for so long, two whole years. She’d been sure she was really done with such things. Why should it come back now, in her own kitchen, on a happy Saturday afternoon, just because of a photograph? She’d been seeing newsreels and hearing radio broadcasts about the war in Europe for a year with no such effect.


Helen’s American history teacher had colored a world map to show occupied countries and inserted little flags to mark embattled areas.  Helen knew that people were suffering and dying every day and night overseas, yet neither the classroom map nor the teacher’s daily review of current events had sparked any visions or intuitions. Helen hadn’t even had to resist them. They just weren’t there.


“Honey, are you all right?”


Helen turned to find her mother standing beside her. Only then did she realize she’d been leaning against the edge of the counter and softly moaning.


“It’s that picture,” she said. “I saw… Well, I didn’t actually see anything, but two of those kids—I know they’re going to die.”


“Oh, Helen.” Emilie put her arm around the girl’s shoulders.


“I don’t like finding out things like that, Mama. I don’t know what to do with them.”


Helen could see her mother struggling to think of what to say. Abruptly, Emilie opened the breadbox.


“All right then,” she said. “I was saving these rolls for supper, but why don’t you use them for sandwiches?”


She peered into the refrigerator. “I know I’ve got some sweet pickles... Here they are. And, Helen, I believe there’s a bit of lettuce still in the garden. Go pick it. It’ll only be wasted if the weather turns.”


Helen stood staring at her mother’s industry as if she were watching a circus act.


“Well, go on,” Emilie said.


Still Helen hesitated. Emilie moved close to her and spoke quietly.


“It’s just these times,” she said. “All the terrible news, the wondering where it’s leading. Anyone could have premonitions or dreams. I’m sure people do who have never had such things before. Don’t worry about what to do about it.”


Helen knew it was not as simple as that, and she knew Emilie knew it, too. But she decided she would take the route her mother was laying out. She would pretend she hadn’t received any communication about the children in the photograph, at least not anything almost anyone might imagine, as her mother said, in times like these. She would make her bologna sandwiches and go to the band concert and hold Billy’s hand while they listened to the music, and she’d stop with him in the shadows on the way home and kiss him and let him touch her breasts if he wanted to, which he had taken to wanting often lately. She could forget anything while that was happening. She could forget anything just by thinking about that happening.



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